So I engaged in my latest piece of performative progressive rhetoric last month, when I talked about how a whole lot of people could talk a good game about wanting girls engaged in academic competition but a whole lot of people still don’t know how to take the actions that create safe spaces for women to take leadership and assert their voices fully.
I changed the ending to that thing on the advice of a couple of very wise women because they persuaded me that I was saying things that were important, and that I needed to keep saying those things, and it was in saying these things that I would help keep creating those safe spaces.
But if I’m honest, my heart wasn’t in that ending entirely. What I desperately wanted to say, what I am still tempted to say, is “It’s time for me to shut up.”
I get tired of my voice. I imagine other people getting tired of my voice. I can’t believe my voice does a single ounce of good.
I know how many of you who read this and who know me disagree with that. When I wrote my own thing, I got to Atlanta and worked that high school quizbowl national championship and I heard a lot of very good feedback from it, a lot of gratitude. I’m glad for that. I want the women who are engaged in academic space to know that there’s a face here that values them, that wants them to be fully empowered.
But there are still voices I hear on the other side. They don’t even have to speak out loud. I know they’re reading, and I know they’re there still casting judgment, and I still have an internal dialogue raging over whether I’m right or whether I’m wrong.
When I can detach myself from the internal dialogue, when I can listen to others and not just my own selfish thoughts, I know how many of those voices are lying to me, and I can leave those voices alone. But it’s so hard to detach, and this season of my life makes it harder than ever.
I spent a long time after November 8, 2016 in shock and anger. I was in disbelief at the election outcome from East Tennessee, which voted in overwhelming number for the ultimate winner. If I was in such disbelief, I can only imagine the feelings of my friends in “blue” parts of the world far removed from any support, or of friends in suburban neighborhoods who thought they were among rational voters and who woke up to find they were among quite a few rich white nationalists.
I had just returned from a conference full of conversations with prominent women scholars, prominent LGBTQ+ scholars, even the presence of racial and cultural diversity, and genuinely excited for the time of collaboration I was stepping into. I found myself in sudden and despairing doubt about the country I lived in, hearing the anguish and the rejection from these scholars I was coming to know as friends.
And as I started to hear the voices – particularly the voices of black and Latinx ministers of the Gospel – ask very serious questions of the 81% of white evangelicals who had voted for this man who would become president, I began to share them on social media.
And people who I had attended church with not even six months before, who I know had heard sermons on the folly of the statement “Make America Great Again” and the importance of welcome for all people, regardless of race – people began attacking me for being negative, for making something a moral issue that was purely a political issue, for questioning their genuine faith and their prayerfully considered vote.
We may have reached a détente, if not an actual peace. But their voices are still in my mind. And the internal dialogue starts raging again.
When you look at the simple reality, this moment in history is so absolutely obvious. We have a national narrative we have constructed, that I was indoctrinated into throughout my schooling, of welcome to huddled masses, yearning to be free. We are in this country to be a melting pot, many different people united in this great place in pursuit of freedom, in pursuit of opportunity. The American Dream has worked for so many, and for none more than that nuclear family unit who stayed together, tightly bound and in prayer to God. We have built up wealth, more wealth than any society has ever known. We welcome all people from all places to join in to this narrative, to work hard, to share in that wealth, to continue our ever-upward climb.
And we come out of that narrative to see borders closed to people fleeing strife and the wrong people captured having come across and those families literally separated, with no promise that they will be reunited.
And – lest we forget that this isn’t just about zero-tolerance at the border – we see hard workers seeking out that path suddenly rounded up and captured, leaving families without fathers and mothers. Yes, many were here “illegally”* – whatever that means in our great narrative. But some had followed every rule to the letter, and were still caught up and traumatized – solely because of the color of their skin. If you’re the wrong person, that promise of opportunity isn’t actually for you.
(It’s not theoretical. It’s not just an issue of South Texas. ICE operates in my very backyard, in ways that get talked about from the pulpit of my rather conservative Methodist church. ICE conducts these raids all the time – another one happened on Tuesday. And they don’t take care to look for the undocumented*; they go for profiling blunt force.)
It’s so obvious, right? If what I was taught in school had even an ounce of truth, the thugs who break up families and shut off borders and make it plain that these people don’t count are plainly in the wrong, aren’t they?
And what of that great wealth? Well, the man we elected keeps making deals that benefit him. He says he’s forgoing his salary, but he keeps retreating to his own properties and charging the federal Secret Service for the hotel rooms – when he’s not gently prodding foreign visitors to those properties himself. His family and his closest allies continue to find themselves in positions that oddly enrich them – just Monday news broke about a fellow New York dealmaker who’s now Secretary of Commerce being in a couple of seriously shady relationships with Russia and China, relationships that could make his family quite a bit of dough.
We get a new one of those stories every week. We are so prosperous as a nation that we elected a man who is robbing the treasury and stuffing the money in every friend’s pocket he can find. The economic policies are built to benefit the already-rich businesses. The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau is being dismantled. If you don’t know somebody, we’re not going to keep watch over your path to prosperity. Just ours.
I have to wonder if I was lied to in grade school. I have these friends assuring me no, you were told the truth, and besides, with all these rule-breakers out of the way, there’s more prosperity for you, hooray!
It reaches the point that I see the pain and anguish on these loved one’s faces redoubled and compounded, and I can’t go on like everything’s okay, no matter how many of my friends and neighbors are now getting everything they think they wanted.
Every injustice you point out, every conservative voice of reason who calls a new development into question whose voice you raise, just makes you into more and more of a naysayer. A nag. A spoilsport.
And eventually you don’t want to hear yourself speak anymore.
And eventually you believe nobody really cares what you have to say.
I have to step back and be rational. I do have a unique viewpoint, and I have unique things to communicate. I’m a member of the scholarly elite from a rural background and with a still active Christian faith. My academic career is not a neat, straight path; it’s been halting, awkward, pock-marked by failed jobs and failed institutions and a whole lot of moving around. The institutions I’ve served have been two year colleges, regional universities, and small private colleges with religious heritage – hardly the fashionable places in our world. I’m an experienced educator with a voice that can speak to the small town just as easily as it can speak to the room full of research-one professors. I have a passion for students no matter whether I see them day in and day out in a classroom or I send electronic messages to them online.
And I’ve been worn down and worn out by the past two years. Every outrageous and fraudulent statement from a president taken seriously as policy, every once-unthinkable taboo broken and immediately forgiven, every principle once strongly held and stripped away – all of it leaves me protesting the same thing, calling the same things foul, rejecting the millionth iteration of the same basic atrocity, the same rejection of someone’s humanity.
I am saying nothing new. I am simply repeating myself.
I need to say something new again.
*The original post was made on June 22nd. It was gently edited on June 24th in response to a criticism from someone from Latin America, here in the United States on an educational visa, noting that I used the word “illegal” to refer to undocumented immigrants.
This is a completely fair criticism, and one I thought I’d considered. In an original draft of this, the word “illegally” was in quotes where I’ve put it in quotes now. (There was a second instance of “illegals” in the same paragraph without quotes; it was where the word “undocumented” sits now.) But somehow the quotes disappeared and I failed to reconsider it throughout multiple iterations of the essay, including my final word-by-word review.
I’ll save this for later, but I think this is an object lesson in its own right. Those of us who have never had to deal with the trauma of this moment and who just hear the dialogue in the news media – even when we avoid the worst offenders of the news media – still can say and hear the word “illegal” without a second thought, not even thinking that it still puts the dialogue in the hands of those who want to dehumanize.
You always, always, always do well to listen to voices that aren’t your own. I keep saying this, and I’m still learning this.